A Lost Psychedelic Fantasy of the ’60s: Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes

“We’ve moved into a place, mode of being–call it what you will–where imagination is extremely powerful. That’s what I keep trying to drum into your thick heads.”  Aunt Hilda looked rather cross.

Is it a children’s book?  Is it an adult book?

That, so often, is the question when we revisit a beloved  book from childhood.

Mind you, it took me a long time to return to Joan North’s The Whirling Shapes, a great forgotten English fantasy novel of the ’60s.  (I forgot it, too:  it’s out-of-print.)   Published as a children’s book in England in 1966 and in the U.S. in 1967, it is a quintessential ’60s book, right down to the gloomily psychedelic cover:  the unhappy white face surrounded by the black coils reminded me of Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane.

During my Jefferson Airplane years, I found a copy of The Whirling Shapes during study hall, where I did very little except ask for library passes, since I had no intention of studying in public.  Studying, such as I understood it, was done in my room, listening to records. The Whirling Shapes was one in a long line of fantasies that shaped my imagination, including all of E. Nesbit (generously subsidized by my mother, since the library had few of her books), Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, C. S. Lewis’s Space trilogy, and John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy.

Grace Slick resembles the cover image of TWS!

A recent rereading of The Whirling Shapes was delightful.   In this strange, minimalist portal fantasy,  the mid-twentieth-century soul is threatened by conformity and all things mechanical.  If you don’t pay attention, you lose who you are.  It’s a psychedelic cozy catastrophe, where the mind can be a portal.

This inner-space fantasy has a multi-generational cast.  It begins traditionally, with the appearance of an outsider.   When Liz, the 14-year-old heroine, comes to live with relatives at 21 Arlington Crescent in London while her mother is in a sanatorium, she finds Aunt Paula and Uncle Charles pleasantly insignificant, but her boy-crazy cousin Miranda and the eccentric anthropologist Great-Aunt Hilda, who lives in the flat upstairs, inspire her affection.

There are mysteries:  a  brightly-lit house on the heath occasionally appears at night (only Liz can see it).   One night she goes outdoors and struggles to reach it, but just as she is about to arrive she finds herself back on the stoop of the house at Arlington Crescent with Aunt Hilda looking over her.

When Liz tells her she saw the house, Aunt Hilda says she knows.

“I’m responsible for it.  I imagined it and it came,” said Aunt Hilda, offering her the plate of cookies.

Liz took one as though hypnotized.

“I did it the night you arrived,” said Aunt Hilda.

Liz bit the cookie dazedly.  “I don’t understand.  Did you say you imagined it?”

Aunt Hilda went over to her desk, opened a drawer, and took out a small object wrapped in a white silk handkerchief.  She unraveled the handkerchief to disclose an oval piece of wood somewhat the size and shape of an egg; this she gave to Liz.

“I did it with the help of that,” she said.

“That” is a piece of wood from the sacred tree of the Dingas, known as the Tree of Dreaming True.  (The Dingas are a tribe Hilda’s great-grandfather studied:  North has her bit of humor with the name.)  And Aunt Hilda is very afraid that, since the power of thought is real, she may have opened a pathway into an unknown world.

And she has.  Sinister whirling shapes are released through the mind of her nephew, James Mortlake,  a melancholy artist who wanders into the portal house.  When James disappears,   a thick fog encircles the house on Arlington Crscent, and the whirling shapes threaten to dissolve human beings.  To conquer the whirling shapes is now the responsiblity of  the intergenerational extended family, including Miranda’s boyfriend, Tom, a poet and medical student.

The style is simple, but North waxes lyrical in a series of surreal episodes near the end.  And there are some surreal  ’60s-ish poems, written by Liz and Tom, interspersed with the text.

No vampires or Harry Potter to fit today’s Y.A. market, but I do think it could be reissued and do well as a crossover fantasy novel.

North wrote two other novels, too, The Cloud Forest and The Light Maze. They are also out-of-print, but perhaps I shall find them.